By the time you enter the doors of the Orange County Museum of Art and look for the first work of art on display, you'll probably have stepped on it already.
The Newport Beach museum's inaugural "2013 California-Pacific Triennial" exhibit, which opens Sunday, begins with an incongruous speed bump that stretches from the tree in front to a strip of lawn near the door. The speed bump is actually an installation by Chilean sculptor Sebastian Preece, who contributed other municipal-themed touches around the grounds.
But as curator Dan Cameron readily noted, many spectators will simply walk over (or past) the speed bump. The intended effect, he said, is a subtle one: the encroachment of an urban environment on a private space like the museum.
"It's something you would step over and not even see as being out of place," Cameron said Friday as the museum hosted a media preview of the show, which brings together works from around the Pacific Rim.
The concept of spotlighting the overlooked dominates much of the exhibit, which comprises the work of 32 artists from 15 countries bordering the Pacific Ocean. Among the pieces on display are a collection of semi-wilted flowers, rescued from cemetery dumpsters, that Colombian artist Adriana Salazar embalmed and set on rotating motors; a wall of mostly obscure Latino-themed album covers; and a pair of fabric ceilings from condemned Mexican buildings that Gabriel de la Mora saved and hung in all their cracked, stained glory.
In short, the title of a recent Art Garfunkel song, "Everything Waits to Be Noticed," might make an alternate name for OCMA's triennial. And that theme applies culturally as well.
Before leading a walk-through tour, Cameron explained that some of the represented regions, such as Central America and Southeast Asia, had spotty exposure in galleries until recent years. The triennial, which replaces the California Biennial that OCMA has hosted since 1984, serves partly as a celebration of the Pacific's increased importance as a cultural hub.
"The Pacific Ocean really has taken on a kind of a primacy in our world today," said Cameron, who came on as curator in 2011. "Just as trans-Atlantic commerce and exchange of ideas built this country and established the government and traditions of the United States, so, moving into the 21st century, movement across the Pacific Ocean, I think, has become the most important theater or platform for the exchange of ideas and cultural expressions.
"So this exhibition is very much an effort, I think, to catch up with that development in the last several years."
The triennial, which the museum advertises as the first regular Pacific Rim show in the Western Hemisphere, comprises the work of 11 American artists as well as others from Peru, Thailand, Australia and elsewhere. The forms are similarly diverse, ranging from painting and sculpture to video and conceptual art.
Furthermore, not all the inspirations in the show are Pacific in nature. Mark Dean Veca's "Pete's Place," an installation at the end of the lobby featuring a beanbag mounted on a stage before a sunbeam mural, took its cue from St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. Veca, a Los Angeles resident, called the work a commentary on the intersection between holiness and daily life.
"It's sort of a cross between those ideas, I think," he said. "I like to have these opposing elements in my work. And in this one, you could say that it's sort of the sacred and the profane or the common and the exalted, or the high and the low, basically."
For the opening piece — well, after the speed bump — the museum captures a slice of Pacific history: a mural and three pencil-and-acrylic canvases by Mexican artist Hugo Crosthwaite, who created a series of images based on carpa, the vaudeville-style theater that flourished in his country in the early 20th century.
The first canvas, to the left of the front door, depicts a pelado, or urban slum-dweller, fleeing across the border with a skull balanced upside-down on his head. Images on his chest show him running from the law with the Virgin of Guadalupe watching over him. Another canvas depicts a girl perched on top of a crowd of warring gunmen — an image Crosthwaite said was inspired by a true story of a beauty queen whose pageant was funded by drug dealers.
Crosthwaite, one of four Mexican artists in the triennial, called his work a reflection of how the mind remembers history. To heighten that feeling, he opted to eschew color for all his images.
"Black and white has that sense of history," Crosthwaite said. "When we think of history, at least 20th-century, we always think of black-and-white images, photography. That gives it sort of a sense that this really happened."
If You Go
What: "2013 California-Pacific Triennial"
Where: Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday (extended hours until 8 p.m. Thursday), June 30 to Nov. 17
Cost: $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and students, free for children 12 and under and OCMA members